Friday, July 16, 2010

The Torah of Science

Rabbi Slifkin posted about a forthcoming book by Rabbi Moshe Meiselman to be named The Torah of Science. First of all, does anyone think a new Young Earth Creationist book will have anything original or intelligent to add? It would save everyone time and trouble if Rabbi Meiselman would just point to any other YEC screed, and Rabbi Slifkin would just point to any one of the many books thoroughly debunking and refuting YEC. In any case, here's my quick take on it.

If the book is actually to be named "The Torah of Science," Rabbi Meiselman has rendered his case irrelevant before it has begun. Torah--to an Orthodox Jew--is revealed knowledge that cannot be changed or questioned. Science, by its nature, needs to be questionable and challengeable. It must be placed under scrutiny, tested and retested, and modified when necessary. In other words, there is no and can be no "Torah of Science." Science must be fallible and fluid, not regimented and ruled in the way that there is "Torah of business practices" or "Torah of medical ethics." The phrase "Torah of science," used in this way, is an oxymoron and speaks to the intellectual dishonesty bound to be rife in Meiselman's pages: he will be trying to squeeze science into the set of conclusions he thinks it must obey. This concept is anathema to anyone who cares about science.*

Of course, I am assuming the above is the sense in which he means "The Torah of Science." I suppose it could also mean, "lessons for Torah to be gained from science." Something tells me this is not the way in which he means it, though. (As pointed out by others, it could also be a nonsense phrase trying to be the opposite of Rabbi Slifkin's book and to sound like it cares more about Torah. That's likely, but that would probably still contain the implicit message I'm describing above.)

*There are, of course, accepted rules or frameworks governing procedures of good science. However, those frameworks are themselves open to argumentation, questioning and development based on reason and evidence--which is how they came about to begin with. Moreover, they are about procedures, not about conclusions.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Dennett on Rational Inquiry into Religion

I posted a comment based on the following on the OPR blog in response to some claims of, "truth is subjective, and you cannot rationally inquire into religion without psychological coloring," which somehow is being used to defend religion. In any case, the following is my regular response to that sort of thing. It is a quote from Dan Dennett responding to a slightly different charge that warrants the same response:
One reader of an early draft of this chapter complained at this point, saying that by treating the hypothesis of God as just one more scientific hypothesis, to be evaluated by the standards of science in particular and rational thought in general, Dawkins and I are ignoring the very widespread claim by believers in God that their faith is quite beyond reason, not a matter to which such mundane methods of testing applies. It is not just unsympathetic, he claimed, but strictly unwarranted for me simply to assume that the scientific method continues to apply with full force in this domain of truth.

Very well, let's consider the objection. I doubt that the defender of religion will find it attractive, once we explore it carefully.

The philosopher Ronaldo de Souza once memorably described philosophical theology as "intellectual tennis without a net," and I readily allow that I have indeed been assuming without comment or question up to now that the net of rational judgement was up. But we can lower it if you really want to.

It's your serve.

Whatever you serve, suppose I return service rudely as follows: "What you say implies that God is a ham sandwich wrapped in tin foil. That's not much of a God to worship!". If you then volley back, demanding to know how I can logically justify my claim that your serve has such a preposterous implication, I will reply: "oh, do you want the net up for my returns, but not for your serves?

Either way the net stays up, or it stays down. If the net is down there are no rules and anybody can say anything, a mug's game if there ever was one. I have been giving you the benefit of the assumption that you would not waste your own time or mine by playing with the net down."

The point is straightforward. If truth were entirely subjective and rationality were impossible on this topic, we could not be engaging in discussion where I am supposed to answer rationally. In many cases, though, the very fact that someone proffers reasons for their beliefs (and tries to convince you of them!) belies their claim that we cannot engage in rational discussion or inquiry. If it were true, all bets would be off, and there would be no connection between a claim they make, their reasons for making it, and what I infer from it.

Edit: To clarify, the point is not simply that if rationality is out the window you may as well believe anything about God. The point is that if rules of rationality are out, we cannot have a discussion at all--and the believer wants me to follow those rules while he does not. As I write in the comments, the example could have read:

"What you say implies that you hate children! What kind of an argument is that?"

Or: "What you say implies that muffins have consciousness! Isn't that a little farfetched?"

It's a crazy inference by any standard of rationality, but that has been tossed out rather asymmetrically by the believer.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

But Why a Good God?

I wrote at one point about some psychological phenomena that suggest a root for religious tendencies, but I would like to reorder them to raise and take a stab at a new question. To recap, it is quite plausible that religion is a byproduct of cognitive abilities and tendencies including (but not limited to):

a) Theory of mind. We impute minds to others, including assuming they have beliefs, desires, goals, etc. This is a much more useful way to understand and predict the behavior of others than viewing them as complicated machines.

b) Essentialism. We tend to assume things have hidden essences that make them what they are, sort of like Plato's ideal forms. Probably useful for categorization of things.

c) Anthropomorphism. We are good at detecting patterns and are particularly attuned to detecting human (or otherwise agentic) features, but sometimes overdo it for a variety of reasons.

Cross these together, and you can get a disembodied agentic mind that constitutes an anthropomorphized essence of the universe (or something like that). But here's my question: why is God assumed to be good, and why is God looked at as a father figure? Why not a neutral essence? One important factor in exploring this is how universal the "goodness belief" is: if it's culture-specific, it may just be an add-on to the main religion package. That could change what level of explanation to look for--i.e. from evolutionary advantage or universal psychological phenomenon to a successful meme in particular cultures. (Admittedly, the gods did bad things in Greek myths, but as far as I know, they still expected piety from humans.) In any case, while I'm leaving the goodness issue open as an earnest question, I did think of two possible candidates, both of which I mentioned in that previous post without recognizing their significance.

1) One is the Just World Hypothesis: people are motivated to assume the world is a fair and just place, which seems to be comforting--if people get what they deserve, I can be good and therefore protected. And if the world is just, shouldn't we assume the agentic essence of the world is just and good? In this option, God's assumed goodness is a side effect of the Just World Hypothesis spilling over into the mix.

2) Another possibility is Illusions of External Agency. We all have "psychological defense mechanisms" that sometimes make us happier with what we have (for example, in post-decisional dissonance reduction). However, we usually aren't aware of the operation of those systems (would they work if we were?), and so people often assume that they got something objectively good, and go on to assume it must have been provided by a benevolent external agent. If religious belief arises in part from over-application of agency to the universe, this type of illusion could create the sense that it is a benevolent agent. In this option, God's assumed goodness is more intrinsically part of the anthropomorphic mix.

I'm not sure if these are the answer--or part of the answer--and again, I wonder how universal the goodness-belief is to begin with. I also still wonder where the parent part comes from. Why would a benevolent agentic essence be viewed as a father figure as well, or a creator? Perhaps this has roots in ancestor worship or crossovers from creation myths, but I don't know enough about those to say. Or is it connected to morality and parental relationships more directly somehow? Any ideas?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Evolution and Religion: Thoughts in Progress

Many religious people--including many or even most Modern Orthodox Jews--view the fact of evolution as compatible with religious tradition: Genesis is not to be taken literally, and God had a guiding Hand over the process of evolution.

Now, I like this take on religion and evolution, mostly because a) it's what I believed when I still believed, and b) it's good for honest religion and honest science. Indeed, some point to commentators like Ramban, who seems to suggest that God may have inserted a soul into a man-like animal to create humans. However, it is obvious that many religious people find evolution threatening, and it's important to ask why. Moreover, I have come to question the idea that religion and evolution can be squared so easily; it can be done, I'm sure, but I think it's harder than I used to assume. Here's a list of issues evolution presents for religion, some of which are culled from recent points I or others have made around the blogosphere. I'd be interested to see if anyone has any other points to add, or thinks these aren't such serious issues for the conciliatory point of view.

1. Evolution contradicts Genesis. An obvious starting point, yes, but even for those who say the Bible shouldn't be taken literally, one might wonder why God would write an account that looks like an actual description of creation to those who don't know better. I assume it was taken as literal by many people over a very long stretch of time, so how come only those of us living in the last 151 years get to understand that it is metaphorical? Is this not theologically confusing? ("God is mysterious and had a reason," I suppose. Post hoc and vague, but not unusually so. "People couldn't have handled it back then, so God waited until we were ready," I have also heard. I say: have you been to modern day Texas?)

Beyond this more minor point, though, some of the details become challenging. For example, Genesis discusses the creation of different animals, clearly stating that God created each animal "l'minah"--"according to its kind." From an evolutionary point of view, though, there is no such thing as a fixed, stable species with its own essence. Any two species can be connected via a series of intermediates in some pattern, with no sharp dividing line between them: any animal in the series was very similar to its parents and offspring. At a certain point, two groups of animals are different enough that they can no longer interbreed, and we call them two different species. So, the allegorical reader of Genesis must not only understand "God created" as "God guided the process of evolution," but also understand details such as "l'minah" as using "lashon b'nei adam" ("the common language of people"). Alternatively, the "creation" of a species involves the insertion of some essential soul into random animals in a series. (As noted above, IIRC, the Ramban actually suggests something along these lines about the creation of humanity--but that's what set humanity apart from animals. And, which animal should get the special essential soul of the species, if none had previously been essentially different from the prior or following links in the chain?)

To sum it up: evolution is not creation, and Genesis contains a creation story. It seems like it might need to be understood as a myth that contains a moral message in order to get off the ground, doesn't it? And at that point, aren't we wondering why God is writing a creation myth?

2. Let's suppose God has indeed providentially guided the process of evolution. Again, this gets harder when you examine the details. For hundreds of millions of years, animals have been competing, suffering, and dying. As may be obvious, animals can feel pain, so it is easy to begin to see "nature red in tooth and claw" when you consider evolutionary history. All that time and all that suffering was mandated by God to have a mechanistic process that would eventually churn out humans, in a tiny blip in the timeframe? The problem of evil becomes magnified a thousandfold.

3 & 4. As noted in the last post I put up, Western religions assume humans have a special place in the universe. Evolution creates two problems for this. First, humans are a part of the same mechanistic process as all natural life, not on a special metaphysical plane--even though we still have unique abilities in the animal world. Second, at some point, presumably, a new species will branch out of Homo Sapiens--making it a little harder for us to be the be all and end all. Once again, you have to assume the insertion of a special essence into humanity. Cognitive science has not been kind to the "ghost in the machine," though, making it an unnecessary entity that has been posited.

5. Evolution explains away the appearance of design in the universe, and as such, makes it unnecessary to posit that Someone was guiding the process (explored in more depth here). Like the ghost in the machine in cognitive science, one is positing the unnecessary to explain the data.

Of course, it's certainly still possible to accept evolution and theology, and I hope many people continue to do so. However, it's interesting and worthwhile to consider why it is so threatening to so many religious people and how well it can actually be squared with religion. The above contains my first stab. Any thoughts?